Decision: State v. Henson

December 12th. The Kansas Supreme Court has issued its decision in State v. Henson (No. 98,573). In an opinion by Justice Luckert, the Court unanimously affirmed the first-degree murder conviction of Toriana Henson for shooting Randy Davis in the head at a used car lot in Wyandotte County.

On the night of May 20th, 2006. Davis and some others had been out drinking. They returned to the car lot owned by one of the men where they were joined by Henson who was known to them. More beer was purchased and the men continued talking and joking around. Henson said something to mock Davis and Davis hit him in the head, knocking him to the ground unconscious. He was knocked out for about 10 minutes. When he recovered, one of the other men helped Henson away, intending to go to the hospital. Instead, Henson went home, cleaned himself up, spoke to his wife and retrieved a gun. Henson and Hall then returned to the lot, where Henson walked past some others, one of whom tried to persuade him to stop, pointed the gun at Davis’ head, said “What’s up now, Randy?” and shot him. Subsequently Hall and Henson fled to Henson’s mistress’ flat where Henson (after a brief trip home) grabbed a case and made a fleeting attempt to flee the State before surrendering to police the next day.

At trial, Henson tried to introduce evidence of Davis’ violent character. The District Court refused this on the grounds that the two fights Henson wanted referred to had no connection to the murder and were therefore of no probative value to the case, since Henson was not involved in them in any way. Henson also sought to have the jury instructed on the lesser included offenses of voluntary manslaughter (based on heat of passion) and/or second-degree reckless murder or involuntary manslaughter (on the theory that Davis putting his hand up to move the gun caused it to ‘go off’). The Court also rejected these mutually contradictory arguments. Henson appeals these three rulings and asks that the Supreme Court also rule that cumulatively they denied him a fair trial.

The Supreme Court rejects all of Henson’s arguments. On the matter of the fights it draws the same conclusion as the District Court, that the fights being on a different day and involving different people have no bearing on why Henson shot Davis (intent being an element of first degree murder).  On the other two arguments, the Court starts from the rule that District Courts have an obligation to instruct on lesser included offenses unless there is no way the jury could reasonably convict on them.

For the voluntary manslaughter (heat of passion) argument the Court surveys the existing case law and demonstrates that because Henson had a ‘cooling off’ period before he shot Davis (in which he interacted normally with his wife, cleaned himself etc) he cannot avail himself of this way out. Henson had argued that the length of time between being knocked out and shooting Davis was shorter than the prior cases, but the Court noted that the length of time is not important, it is the state of mind that is, and Henson clearly knowingly and intentionally shot Davis to death.

For the reckless homicide argument, where Henson suggested that pointing the gun at Davis was reckless and therefore Davis’ death was a result of recklessness, the Court bends over backwards not to descend into mockery. It notes that a single element of a crime cannot be plucked out of context to provide a reason for a lesser conviction, and that all the witnesses reported that Henson pointed a gun at Davis and shot him with no evidence whatsoever that it was an accident. Therefore no reasonable jury could convict him of reckless homicide.

Given this, the Court also rejected Henson’s argument of cumulative error since there was no error. The closing sentence of the opinion is that “Henson received a fundamentally fair trial.”

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